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NCCOS Project

Mapping Fish Habitat to Determine Coral Reef Ecosystem Health in the Caribbean

This project began in January 2008 and was completed in December 2012

We are integrating sonar information on fish with seafloor mapping sonars to produce maps of the coral reef and reef fish habitat use in U.S. Caribbean territories.

Why We Care
Declining coral reef ecosystems threaten many countries that depend on their countless benefits. The Caribbean beaches and reefs attract millions of visitors annually, and the area derives, on average, half its gross domestic product from tourism. Coral reefs also provide food for millions of local residents; storm, erosion, and coastline protection; and habitats supporting marine biodiversity, economically important fish, and medical research.

What We Are Doing
To protect and sustain these valuable resources, regional managers and academic partners are working to designate marine protected areas (MPAs) or other place-based management strategies. We are providing decision makers maps of coral reef habitats, reef fish habitats, fish density, and seafloor features so they can better understand local coral reef ecosystems.

Specifically, we are integrating fish sonar data, collected using hydroacoustic sensors, into a multibeam sonar or echosounder mapping system to efficiently produce high-resolution maps of the distribution of fish in relation to seafloor features throughout the U.S. Caribbean. These advances in underwater remote sensing technologies are expanding our understanding of the condition, function, and relative health of coral reef ecosystems.

Our maps help fulfill the Coral Reef Conservation Act and National Coral Reef Action Strategy’s ongoing goal of creating comprehensive maps of all United States shallow-water coral reef habitats to advance the sustainable use and long-term conservation of these ecosystems. This understanding will allow them to best identify areas of high management priority and to maximize the benefits of the protected area.

Next Steps
We will be expanding accessibility and dissemination of our collected data. Web-based geographic information system (GIS) portals, such as Google Earth maps, of fish habitats provide decision makers and scientists easy access to our maps, and our three-dimensional virtual models of fish habitat use provide a visual learning tool. We will also:

  • Compare remote sonar observations with direct visual observations from scuba divers or video observations using remotely operated vehicles and drop cameras.
  • Relate habitat use patterns to habitat types and seafloor features using statistical and predictive models.

Additional Resources

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NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

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